Nothing About Us Without Us

What does it mean to be inclusive when working with kids in research?

Nothing About Us Without Us’ is the title of a chapter in Costanza-Chock’s (2020) book Design Justice’. The chapter starts by outlining the controversy that followed a Google employee sharing a memo called ‘echo chamber’ that suggested the company, like most tech companies, had limited diversity and thus the products being designed within them were not inclusive. In the children’s tech and digital play industry, there is a similar lack of diversity in the workers developing products for younger audiences. Bringing a more diverse workforce onboard is one aspect that needs addressing; making sure we are connected to diverse groups of children and families is another part of the equation. They are connected. Working with diverse groups of children during the research and development phases of design means children from under represented groups are much more likely to see a place for themselves in our industry as they grow up.

While it is impossible to diversify a workforce overnight, it is possible to immediately reach out and ensure we extend our understanding of audience/user to be as wide reaching as possible. There are two routes to do this, firstly, through adopting a child-centred design process, and secondly, by finding ways to allow children to contribute to research processes in ways that are meaningful to them.

Child-centred Design

At Dubit where I work part-time, we know that children see the world differently from adults and this is why the business has a focus on both research and development. We are also aware that children cannot be seen as one homogenous group. In an earlier blog post I outlined how Dubit research includes children throughout the design and development process from in-game research, user testing, research on location in homes and schools, and more, including experimenting with new methodologies to highlight our awareness that research design is not “one size fits all”.

At its best, child-centred design seeks to readdress the imbalances that might exist in the adult populations that are making products for them, however, Costanza-Chock (2020) reminds us that:

‘The choice of which users are at the centre…is political, and it produces outcomes (designed interfaces, products, processes) that are better for some people than others (sometimes very much better, sometimes only marginally so).’ (p. 77)

This seems ridiculous given that wider design research has shown how responding to the needs of the minority can also be useful for the majority. The curb-cut effect” is one such well-documented example. Glover-Blackwell (2017) writes that lowering curbs to make them compatible for wheel-chair users started with a group of activist friends pouring concrete onto a curb side to produce a makeshift ramp, she describes how the official lowering of curbs that followed that protest ended up having positive repercussions for other populations such as parents with pushchairs.

This is a clear example of how minority groups often need to protest in order to be heard, of course this is not so easy for children. Unlike adults, children face the additional barrier of being gate-kept by adults. In my experience, many adults (even those designing products for children) are nervous of them, in particular about how to talk to them. For some groups of children being heard is reliant on researchers and companies willing to overcome considerable barriers. For example, Davis and Watson (2017) describe this in relation to a large ethnographic study they undertook in order to understand the lives of disabled children. They write that the lead researcher described how difficult he found communicating with the disabled children who used non-verbal communication practices different to his own. However, the 1989 ‘UN Rights of the Child’ Act stipulates that every child should have the right to be heard in issues that concern them, and so we have a responsibility to push ourselves to connect with children from a wide range of backgrounds.

Children’s Voices

Down the road from our main studio in Leeds is Bradford, which has a multi-ethnic population, is the 6th largest city in the UK but has high levels of deprivation. The ‘Born in Bradford’ cohort study has found that children in the city have only 8–20% partial access to computing technologies and the internet. Not only does this impact on children’s access to digital learning and entertainment, it also means children in this part of the UK are less likely to be able to take part in traditional forms of market research that use digital surveys or scrape data about their lives directly via digital content consumed. As Costanza-Chock (2020) argues, with regards to design in general, this cohort of children do not fit with:

‘…default imagined users are raced, classed, and gendered within a worldview produced by the matrix of domination, internalized and reproduced within technology design teams… designers most frequently assume that the unmarked user has access to several very powerful privileges…. English language proficiency, access to broadband internet, a smartphone, a normatively abled body, and so on. (p.76/77)

Over the last couple of years, Dubit has sought to work with the children of Bradford and academics at the University of Leeds to bring them into the design of digital content to be used by them in schools. This project is a good example of the funder of the digital product recognising and setting a side funds to include children in the design process. However, it should be noted that one of the biggest barriers to inclusive research is that it is time and resource intensive making it expensive.

Davis and Watson (2017) describe how their work with non-verbal children and those with hearing impairments required long periods of time to get used to the types of gestures and resources the children used to communicate. To start with there was also an additional need to include adults who knew the children well, so they can help communicate the child’s response until the researcher became more familiar with the child’s communication patterns. As all researchers know, getting access to children for research involves a number of gatekeeper hurdles, for children with disabilities these barriers can be greater. However, the problem is not just about reaching minority groups of children and including them in research it is also about how traditional research methods do not necessarily match their ways of knowing.

Experimental Methods for Inclusion

Commonly-used research methods for working with children have developed from those used to collect data from adults. I still regularly get questions about whether young children can provide anything useful during research processes. “What about very young children who are not yet verbal surely they aren’t able to give you insight into their lives”. I believe this type of questioning comes about because people imagine that the methods used to collect data have to be similar to the ones used with adults, such as interviews, focus groups or simple questionnaires.

For me, the exciting part of thinking about inclusion is the exploration of new ways for gaining insight about children’s opinions and knowledge in general. For example, for the the last few years I have been working with postgraduate art and design students to explore ways to reinvent the traditional survey and make the process of answering multiple choice questions more engaging.

In a couple of weeks time, the latest of these designs, created by a group of Information Experience Design students at the Royal College of Art will be included in the Children’s Media Conference Digital Playground. The work transforms the Playground’s traditional survey designed to gain child-audiences opinions of the playground, into an interactive installation where children push pedals to answer questions, which in turn transforms a wall-mounted landscape.

Kinetic Landscape by Susan Atwill, Nirav Beni, JP Guerrier, Ance Janevica, Lera Kelemen, Shangyun Wu

As with the curb-cut example above, I hope exploration into this area has a ripple effect.

Like many others working in research and design of digital play, I want to help make great products for a wide range of audiences. I will continue to seek new ways of bringing children into the research and design process and work with others advocating for the same.

References

Costanza-Chock (2020) Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. MIT Press.

Davis, J. & Watson, N. with Cunningham-Burley, S. (2017) Disabled children, ethnography and unspoken understanding. The collaborative construction of diverse identities. In: Christensen, P. & James, A. (2017) Research with Children. Perspectives and Practices. Third Edition. London & New York: Routledge.

Glover-Blackwell (2017)The Curb-Cut Effect. The Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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